Bangladesh’s na­tional in­ter­ests could be com­pro­mised in pro­vid­ing In­dia with a free trans­port cor­ri­dor.

Southasia - - Cover story - By Aye­sha Kabir

Free Trans­port Cor­ri­dor to In­dia puts Bangladesh at risk.

The face of Ashuanj has changed. This lit­tle town of Bangladesh hith­erto known only for its fer­til­izer fac­tory is now bustling with ac­tiv­ity. Ves­sel af­ter ves­sel is ar­riv­ing at the port, heavy ma­chin­ery is be­ing un­loaded, mas­sive con­tainer trucks are parked at a nearby de­pot, an ex­pan­sive con­tainer yard is be­ing con­structed, and there is much more. Are the peo­ple thrilled with all these ac­tiv­i­ties go­ing on? Af­ter all, it looks like big time de­vel­op­ment, and big time de­vel­op­ment means big time money, a boost to the econ­omy.

No, the truth is that there is anger and in­dig­na­tion sim­mer­ing over these ac­tiv­i­ties.

The work go­ing on in full swing at Ashuganj is to en­sure full im­ple­men­ta­tion of transit fa­cil­i­ties for In­dia, for it to trans­port goods from one part of the coun­try to an­other, over Bangladesh ter­ri­tory.

When the present gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh de­cided to com­ply with In­dia’s long-stand­ing de­mand for transit fa­cil­i­ties to its north­east­ern states, it was im­me­di­ately met by a strong voice of protest, not only from the op­po­si­tion, but from civil so­ci­ety and the com­mon peo­ple too. It was not just the in­grained anti-In­dian spirit that egged on this protest, but there were sev­eral rea­sons why this fa­cil­ity was eyed with sus­pi­cion.

Though talk­ing about re­gional or sub-re­gional con­nec­tiv­ity in pub­lic, the rul­ing Awami League gov­ern­ment in Bangladesh granted and op­er­a­tional­ized a ‘trans­port cor­ri­dor’ with In- dia through the coun­try with­out any fee. Over the years, the eco­nomic div­i­dends of grant­ing transit to In­dia had been high­lighted, but the ground re­al­ity now shows that the div­i­dends in fi­nan­cial terms are nil. And the haste and se­crecy ac­com­pa­ny­ing the en­tire deal, gives an un­canny feel­ing that all is not well.

The free trans­port cor­ri­dor be­tween Bangladesh and In­dia be­came ef­fec­tive on March 29 this year. Soon af­ter the sign­ing of the MOU on the trans­port cor­ri­dor be­tween Bangladesh and In­dia, 16 di­ver­sion roads were built to fa­cil­i­tate heavy-duty trail­ers car­ry­ing equip­ment for the Pala­tana Power Sta­tion be­ing con­structed in the In­dian state if Tripura. Two tem­po­rary de­pots have been con­structed on leased land to store the ma­chin­ery and equip­ment. The district ad­min­is­tra­tion has be­gun ac­quir­ing land to con­struct a yard with ca­pac­ity for 60 thou­sand con­tain­ers.

Whether Cus­toms at Ashuganj river port or Akhaura bor­der post, both in Bangladesh, are equipped with nec­es­sary lo­gis­tic sup­port to scan the huge hard­ware be­ing re­ceived and sent also seem to have been kept con­fi­den­tial.

Prom­ises of a sub-re­gional con­nec­tiv­ity with dreams of earn­ing mil­lions, the pas­sage through Bangladesh has now been re­duced to a trans­port cor­ri­dor with only one coun­try and that too with­out any fee. In­di­ans de­mand that the pas­sage through land route of the coun­try should be pro­vided for free.

“In­dia needs the help of Bangladesh to get the en­vi­ron­ment­friendly and cheap elec­tric­ity, and Bangladesh should ex­tend its hand for that,” said Dr. Mashiur Rah­man, Eco­nomic Ad­vi­sor to the Prime Min­is­ter of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s Ship­ping Min­is­ter Shah­ja­han Khan speak­ing in fa­vor of fee waiver said, since the In­di­ans were con­struct­ing the road con­nec­tion Bangladesh needed direly, why should they pay any fee?

Dr. Mashiur Rah­man went to the ex­tent of say­ing, “Had our coun­try been an un­civilised one or our lead­ers been il­lit­er­ate then we could have asked for the fees, but that’s not the case.”

Again, se­cu­rity is vi­tally in­ter­linked with this trans­port cor­ri­dor. The na­ture of the goods be­ing trans­ported must be scru­ti­nized and mon­i­tored on a reg­u­lar ba­sis and se­cu­rity must also be pro­vided for safe trans­porta­tion of the goods. Bangladesh lacks fa­cil­i­ties for both types of such se­cu­rity mea­sures.

There are health risks in­volved

too. If hun­dreds of ve­hi­cles travel from In­dia through Bangladesh ev­ery day, health prob­lems are bound to crop up. Top on the list is HIV/ AIDS. In­dia, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial re­ports, had six mil­lion iden­ti­fied AIDSaf­fected per­sons. This out­num­bers AIDS pa­tients any­where else in the world. The main cause of concern is that the three re­gions of In­dia with the high­est preva­lence of AIDS, Mi­zo­ram, Ma­nipur and Na­ga­land, are near the Bangladesh bor­der. To make mat­ters worse, it is the truck driv­ers in In­dia who are mostly AIDS virus car­ri­ers and they are the ones who will be en­ter­ing Bangladesh.

An­other in­evitable fall­out of transit is smuggling and il­le­gal drug trade. Bangladesh is fac­ing the men­ace of the ad­dic­tive drug Phen­sidyl be­ing smug­gled over the bor­der into the coun­try. Phen­sidyl has be­come such a se­ri­ous busi­ness for the In­di­ans now that all along their side of the Bangladesh bor­der so far 132 Phen­sidyl fac­to­ries have been iden­ti­fied. Though the Bor­der Guard of Bangladesh (BGB) has ap­proached the In­dian Bor­der Se­cu­rity Force (BSF) with these facts and fig­ures, no mea­sures have been taken to re­solve the mat­ter.

When there are so many un­re­solved bi­lat­eral is­sues, why is only transit be­ing brought to the ta­ble? It would only be ex­pected that Bangladesh will re­ceive equal trade ben­e­fits in ex­change for grant­ing In­dia transit. This would in­clude ex­panded en­try of Bangladeshi goods in the In­dian mar­ket as well as fa­cil­i­ties to trans­port goods from Bangladesh over In­dian ter­ri­tory to Nepal, Bhutan, Pak­istan, etc. But that is not to be so.

There are sev­eral other un­re­solved is­sues Bangladesh has with In­dia – de­ter­min­ing the mar­itime boundary, de­mar­ca­tion of land borders, killing of in­no­cent Bangladeshis by the BSF along the bor­der, wa­ter shar­ing, Farakka Bar­rage and Ti­paimukh Dam - all these re­main un­re­solved.

In­dia is Bangladesh’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner. In­dia’s busi­ness in Bangladesh is four bil­lion dol­lars, while Bangladesh ex­ports only 3.6 mil­lion dol­lars worth of com­modi­ties to In­dia. Ba­si­cally Bangladeshi goods can’t en­ter the In­dian mar­ket due to non­tar­iff bar­ri­ers. Ne­go­ti­a­tions have been on in this con­nec­tion over the last eight years, but things haven’t moved an inch in Bangladesh’s fa­vor.

To­wards the end of the nineties, the Ganges wa­ter shar­ing treaty was signed in a sim­i­lar hur­ried and se­cre­tive man­ner., But a decade on, Bangladesh is yet to re­ceive its fair share of wa­ter. All of the bi­lat­eral agree­ments signed be­tween Bangladesh and In­dia in the past have met the same fate. So, on a re­gional level the big ques­tion is, why is Bangladesh sitting with In­dia alone to dis­cuss the is­sue of transit in­stead of deal­ing with this is­sue mul­ti­lat­er­ally with other coun­tries of the re­gion? There are many sim­i­lar ques­tions for which no an­swers are be­ing given. The writer is a se­nior jour­nal­ist and is presently Edi­tor of the Dhaka-based PROBE news mag­a­zine. Her fo­cus of in­ter­est is South Asian se­cu­rity and pol­i­tics.

The Bangladeshi civil so­ci­ety eyes In­dia

with sus­pi­cion.

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